A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan

Anchor Books

“Come on, Rolphus,” Charlie says. “Dance with me.”

She takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance.

                           from  A Visit from the Goon Squad


Just ignore the title and you'll be fine

One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I think titles are fair game. So, based on its title, I probably would never have read A Visit from the Goon Squad if it hadn’t won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

But then, based on their original titles, I probably would never have read a number of favorite books: The Red Badge of Courage (“Private Fleming, His Various Battles”), Pride and Prejudice (“First Impressions”), The Great Gatsby (“Trimalchio in West Egg” —What was F. Scott Fitzgerald thinking!), and I remind myself that Egan did not receive the Pulitzer Prize for Titles.

This is one of those books that one remembers less for the story it tells than how it is told. And the telling is a virtuoso performance.

[Woodward and Bernstein’s title, “At This Point in Time,” was changed to All the President’s Men.]

Egan’s inventive, shifting narrative styles are dazzling, with an ensemble cast of characters whose stories link together as in a Robert Altman film: Bennie, a former punk rocker turned middle aged record producer; Lou, an almost-celebrity and one-time lady’s man gone to seed; Dolly, a down-on-her-luck PR agent, who has a genocidal dictator for a client (how does one make a monster presentable?); and others.

[Alex Haley’s title, “Before This Anger,” was changed to the simpler—and more powerful— Roots.]

Less a story than a web of interwoven stories, people’s lives flow back and forth across time, as fluid as memory. Each of the main characters has a different narrative style, some written in present tense, some in past tense; and some shuttle you into the future, looking back. One chapter is presented as a series of Powerpoint slides, which will strike some readers as daring and unconventional, while others may find it gimmicky.

[The title for Margaret Mitchell’s novel was changed to Gone With The Wind. Good call. It’s hard to imagine Max Steiner’s sweeping musical score opening that Civil War epic … “Pansy”?]

I enjoyed this book, but still don’t care for the title. It sounds like something a marketing committee came up with and, except for one reference to time as a “goon,” I still can’t figure out how it relates. So what would I have suggested to that merry band of Madison Avenue Marketeers? I don’t know—Maybe Trimalchio in East Egg?


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15 - August 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.